Paul Streets: The sector cannot remain silent about small charities in post-Brexit Britain

If we do, the concerns of society's most marginalised people will be eclipsed, writes the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

I recently visited a local charity that supports young mothers in a small Midlands town to meet Jen, the chief executive for 17 years and David, the chair (I have changed their names). They work from two houses and support vulnerable young women and their babies with nowhere to go. One houses six women and a further six will be arriving in the new house soon.

The "new" house smelt of wet paint. David and his (volunteer) wife had finished decorating. At the weekend decking was laid in the garden by Jen’s (volunteer) husband as David hacked down the neglected garden. The rooms were finished with donated toiletries, fresh towels and new bedding.

We sat in the charity’s tiny, shabby office, which has closed-circuit TV to ensure the women are safe. Jen told me that many of the girls were amazed to find sheets on the beds: they’d never had them at home. The girls have to be clean: free of drugs and alcohol, and off the streets. It’s the only way to keep them safe. The policy is no men (or, rather, boys – most are under 20) overnight, but fathers are encouraged to visit during the day.

Over the years they’ve worked with dozens of young women and their babies, helping them to develop the skills they need to hold down rent and other bills until they are ready to move to their own homes. Without their dedication, most of these women’s children would have ended up "looked after", costing the state thousands.

Chancellor Philip Hammond probably doesn’t know how local charities like this are helping to reduce our deficit and improve productivity.

At the coalface of the voluntary sector, Jen and David aren’t discussing Brexit or welfare cuts, but whether the rooms will be ready in time. They get on with what is needed, too busy to look beyond this to a future that’s about to hit them, and the young women they support, even harder.

Local charities do this day in, day out. They don’t look for gratitude or reward, but they deserve our respect and action. For many the future must seem overwhelming.

That’s why we launched Facing Forward, which is targeted at small to medium-sized local charities. With it, we have tried to set out in one place the political, economic, social and technological changes coming their way for which they need to face forward, providing practical advice on how to do that.

Now that article 50 has been invoked, it’s more important than ever that, as a sector, we get on the front foot for the changes that will affect millions at the margins of society, people who are largely forgotten and ignored.

We can wish the result had been different or we can move on and shape what comes next. Yes, it carries huge risks. But it’s good that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has started to turn our minds away from the result of the vote to the consequences and, dare I whisper it, the opportunities.

Can a replacement for the European Social Fund better target communities in need? Can employers be incentivised to invest in local people with poor skills and education who are a long way from the job market?

Others, such as the business, agriculture, university and defence lobbies, are at the door of Downing Street now. The voluntary sector cannot remain silent or we risk our issues and the concerns of society’s most marginalised being eclipsed.

Those of us with national roles and influence must use our voices nationally, but we need to draw on the voices of 165,000 small local charities that touch the lives of millions daily. They are society’s mining canaries, singing sobering songs of reality on the ground in our communities, but they have the potential to shape solutions for Theresa May’s shared society in post-Brexit Britain.

Neither we, nor Philip Hammond, can afford their silence.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales. You can share your views on how Brexit will affect the voluntary sector by tweeting him @PaulStreets_

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